When I was young, I was fat. I used to weigh myself before I urinated and then right after, to see how much weight I had lost. It was never enough. My parents got me a calorie-counting chart with a revolving disk that was to be turned until the name of a food appeared in a slot and below it the number of its calories appeared in another slot. The only weight I ever lost using that thing was what calories I used turning the disk. It was never enough. That chart sat for years between a salt shaker and a sugar bowl on a lazy Susan on the kitchen table. After a while I never touched it; I had memorized it.
There were two other fat guys in my grammar school. We were called The Three Tons O’ Fun.
My parents used to hide candy. So far as I know, they never hid it where I didn’t find it. I would eat every piece of candy I found. My parents never mentioned the missing candy. They would simply abandon the latest hiding place and find another. I clawed and licked and chewed and smiled my way through every crack and crevice, every sideboard and bookshelf, in the house. My parents were wonderful; I may have had to find my candy, but there was always candy to be found.
The first thing I ever shoplifted was a candy bar from the pharmacy up the street. My father made me take it back. It was harder to hand over the candy bar than to apologize to the pharmacist, who looked grimly down at me out of the halo of small whiskey bottles behind his little head.
I weighed around two hundred pounds from the age of eleven until I was sixteen and that summer lost sixty-one pounds. My high-school football coach took one look at me that autumn and moved me from tackle to pulling guard, though it turned out I was no faster at 139 pounds than I had been at 200; I always ended up behind the running back for whom I was supposed to block and so was more a pushing than a pulling guard.
I lost all that weight by eating. I lost it by eating doughnuts and french fries and cheeseburgers. I ate these things because they were all there was to eat on the summer job my father got for me by, as he said, “Speaking to the mayor,” repairing sewer pipes for the Department of Streets and Engineering. It was not particularly strenuous work, though whatever work there was was done by us high-school kids while the men who actually did this for a living spent the summer getting tans and smoking cigarettes while leaning on their shovels and looking down at us in the trenches we’d dug in search of the breaks in the sewer pipes we’d been sent to mend.
Our biggest job that summer was repairing a break in the main sewer line that ran right down into the Connecticut River behind the big local prison. Our first morning on that job, as we were preparing to start digging, the warden came out and pointed over to a part of the prison that was protected not by bars but by chicken wire. He said, “That over there is the women’s laundry. Whatever you do, don’t go over there, because the women will reach out and grab you and try to castrate you.”
Sure enough, in the middle of the morning we heard women calling, “Yoo hoo, yoo hoo.” When we looked out over the rim of the trench, we saw panties and bras being waved at us through the chicken wire; “Yoo hoo, yoo hoo.” To me this was like the song of the Sirens meant to lure me to my death on the island of Anthemoessa. No one had ever desired me before. Or if she had, I hadn’t known it; she hadn’t sung out her desire in such sweet and desperate tones, “Yoo hoo. Yoo hoo.”
Neither had I ever seen undergarments move seductively like this except on a clothesline. I leaped out of the trench. I started to walk toward the panties and brassieres and the invisibly dark faces of the women as trapped by their chicken wire as I was by loneliness. And what saved me is what saved Jason and his Argonauts from this same sirens’ song: a superior tune.
For them, it was Orpheus singing and plucking his lyre. For me, it was the ringing of the bell on the shiny tall food truck that, at that moment, arrived for the morning coffee break. I turned from the women and their underwear and took my place in line with the other wiser, stupider men to wait for my glazed doughnut. I ordered two that morning, in that summer when desire so overtook me that no matter how much I ate, I burned it off and with it all remnants of my childhood but memory.
J. D. Landis has published six novels for children, one of which, THE SISTERS IMPOSSIBLE, was a Childrens Choice Award, and five novels for adult readers, one of which, LYING IN BED, won The Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, bestowed every three years by The American Academy of Arts and Letters.